Tuesday, April 28, 2009

So what do you do when you have a birthday coming up that you just can not face? Simple.. don't spend it in London. It doesn't happen then - any fule kno that.

So Easter weekend found Owen and I in Barcelona, my favourite European city. It has been a few years since we had been so it was nice to see old favourites and make some new discoveries too.
We flew out on Good Friday with a BA flight which was serviced by Iberian - which is Spanish for naff - but it's a short flight and despite a lengthier-than-usual taxi ride we were back at the charming small hotel H10 Raco del Pi, though sadly not in one of the large rooms at the front. But then that only encourages you not to linger and get out and start to explore.

Saturday started sunny but the rain came on as we queued for tour tickets for the Palau de la Musica Catalana, the famous concert hall which opened in 1908. Everytime I have visited the city before the advance tickets to see inside Lluis Domenech i Montaner's lovely building have sold out so it was my first point-of-call this time. There were a few tickets free for the 1pm so we decided to go for it.
The guided tour lasts about 50 minutes and is a great way to learn the history of it's conception and building as well as explaining the many telling details around the building celebrating Catalan culture and motifs. I immediately wanted to return to see a concert there - just for the experience of seeing the lovely auditorium come to life.

The sun had appeared by the time we came out and we took our place outside with the other visitors trying to find the best angle to photograph the lovely mosaic facade in the cramped street outside!

After a visit to the lovely Cafe d'Estiu which is a favourite place for tea and a chew, we headed down the Ramblas, along Carrer Ferran and down to Owen's favourite ceramic shop just down from the Picasso museum. After buying some much-needed 'things' bowls we stopped off at another favourite chewerie La Princesa 23 for our first bottle of Cava and a much-needed meal. Then back to the hotel to drop off the purchases and freshen up for dinner. The taste-buds are all go in Barcelona...

We went to a great 1st floor restaurant on La Ramblas called Attic, it's run by the same group as our favourite restaurant Citrus so we thought we'd explore. I detected a bit of an eastern vibe going on with a Japanese style design but they had a great menu and I loved the idea of chromatic deserts.... red, yellow, green, white etc. I think we will definitely go back.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

I heard yesterday of the passing of Beatrice Arthur with a lot of sadness.

During it's heyday THE GOLDEN GIRLS was one of my favourite shows and the caustic, biting put-downs of Dorothy were always the highlights of any show.

With mastery of pace and timing she delivered her withering insults with matchless precision.

Here are some of her best - including the second one which is still one of my all-time favourites...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

While I was away in Barcelona for Easter/birthday - yes I will blog soon! - British cinema lost two distinctive producers.

Peter Rogers is known for producing all the Carry On series and Simon Channing Williams who in an illustrious career produced all Mike Leigh's films from HIGH HOPES to HAPPY GO LUCKY.

Two distinctive strands of film-making but both men believed in their films as well as the industry and have both left a legacy of popular cinema.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sometimes a theatre production can have everything going for it: the cast are on message and off the book, the pacing is fine, the production design gets you into the world of the characters and the ambient elements help conjure a mood.

All well and good. But sometimes all this can be used by a director to cover up the inadequacies of a text and then sadly all the good work can be seen clearly to be sumptuous wrapping paper for a gift you not only had once but have sold already on eBay.

Such is the case with the third of the Donmar's season at the Wyndhams, Yukio Mishima's MADAME DE SADE. While not the train wreck that some of the reviews would have you believe, Michael Grandage's production is a good example that you can't make a silk purse out of sow's ear - no matter how much material your designer has to hand.

The play concerns five women whose lives are directly affected by the notorious Marquise de Sade - his wife and her sister, her mother, a childhood friend and a notorious courtesan. While these women's lives are thrown into conflict by his actions, a maid moves silently through the room, her time fast approaching to have her own voice heard.Okay I'll get the worst over with now. As my Japanese isn't quite up to speed, it is hard to know if I should place the blame at Mishima's door or the absurdly wordy translation by Donald Keene - so I'll split it between them. Mishima wrote his play in the style of Racine who's formalist structure no doubt appealed to his grounding in the ritualistic Japanese theatre but when Racine's tortured heroines give vent to their desires in speeches it is with a passion that breaks through the formalism and keeps you hooked on their dilemma.

But in Keene's unrelentingly verbose translation, de Sade's women talk, and speechify, and make statements about offstage exploits. None of the women change because of these speeches, it's almost as if the characters aren't interacting - just speaking out to the audience. It would help if the endless yap actually kept the plot going but I was constantly confused about where the elusive de Sade was at any given time. It would be ok if the speeches were worth listening to... but the words keep coming, again and again and it is up to the individual actresses to give them the light and shade that the text denies them. Sadly the other problem I have with the production is that the astonishingly average Rosamund Pike is playing the pivotal role of Madame de Sade.

She has the most of the speeches but with the least vocal ability of any of the actresses. Throughout the play she has speech after speech on why she refuses to leave her dissolute husband which are delivered in a stately monotone. At the - um - climax of the play, Madame de Sade announces that she is entering a convent rather than see her husband now he is released from prison. Her final speech - which is surely what the whole play has been leading to - is delivered in the same monotone only with the volume turned up LOUD. To think in about ten years she will be giving us her Cleopatra, her Mrs. Alving... what a scary thought.So an annoying lead(en) performance and a dreary translation. But this was like an awful cake with fantastic thick tasty icing so let's start picking! First off, Grandage's production was an hour and 45 with no interval so luckily moved at a steady pace. Christopher Oram's sumptuous set conjours up Madame de Montreuil's salon, a glittering room of gilt and mirrors. As the text gives little to move the viewer, you are helped immensely by Neil Austin's subtle shifting lighting cues, Adam Cork's unsettling soundscapes and Lorna Heavey's flickering video images on the salon's walls. Oram's extravagant costumes adds to the visual splendour.

Apart from the unbending Pike, the other five actresses in the cast grasp their moments and give performances that shine amid the opulent surroundings.

Judi Dench is to be applauded for adding her box-office appeal to such a non-west end play and makes bricks from the Mishima hay as Madame de Montreuil is given little to do but sweep around the stage in various shades of outraged morality and motherly anguish. That she transcends this to suggest a woman whose moral certainty is slowly eroded is to her credit. The audience - no doubt Denchites to the end - seized any chance to laugh at her every cutting, exasperated, withering remark. The fact that she hadn't said anything remotely funny obviously never crossed their minds.Fiona Button has a nice teasing quality which she utilises to good effect as Madame de Sade's younger sister Anne who is more than happy to be deflowered by her brother-in-law. Deborah Findlay - one of my favourite actresses - plays the devout Baronesse de Semiane, once a childhood friend of de Sade, who refuses to believe the excesses of her former playmate and who of course ends up as a nun!
Jenny Galloway turns in another notable supporting performance as Charlotte, the seemingly docile attentive maid who, at the end of the play, has become a scowling member of the now-dominant
sans-coulottes, bristling with class hatred in a nice scene where she fronts it out with Dench.

And finally there is the delicious, delirious Frances Barber as a notorious aristocractic nympho. I suspect the audience were with me in hoping that every time the large doors of the salon were opened that she would again sweep on and give the play the much-needed kick in the arse it needed.

Actually make that a whip across the arse as the opening scene - which raises expectations of a good play - involves Barber's Comtesse de Saint-Fond lasciviously describing to Findley's shocked but curious Baronesse exactly what de Sade got up to with a couple of whores and his valet in a hotel room in Marseilles, all punctuated with cracks from her riding crop against her volumous train.
Her second appearance (in a towering wig) gives her another lipsmacking speech about being used as an altar during a black mass which is pure purple prose but is made bearable by her purring, husky, sandpaper-in-velvet delivery. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, her scene-stealing is the biggest robbery since Brinks - but thank God she's there!

Most of the time I sat there imagining I was actually watching a revival of Christopher Hampton's majestic LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES with Frances Barber as the Marquise de Merteuil, Judi Danch as Madame de Rosemonde, Deborah Findley as Madame de Volanges and Fiona Button as Cecile. Ah well... I can dream.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


When Effie's collide! There ain't no hiding place. They are singing Out.

Friday, April 10, 2009

On Thursday night I went with Owen to see the latest addition to the dvd shelf that the West End theatre is becoming - PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT: THE MUSICAL (like it would be anything else).
If you are going to plop a known film onto a stage then you have to make it at least theatrical, and PRISCILLA is certainly that... indeed it never stops thrusting it's theatricality at you! Within seconds of opening, a less-Greek, more-Studio 54 chorus descend from the flies to belt out DOWNTOWN, for no better reason than to give you the idea that the show opens in a city.

The touring bus Priscilla appears to much applause and rotates the stage slowly to a continued round of boffo mit-pounding (as Variety was wont to say). However what it very soon reminded me of was the huge ship in MUTINY! at the Piccadilly which although initially magnificent when first viewed ultimately did nothing than go up and down and round and round! As my dear close personal friend Miss Nicola Blackman who appeared in the show said "It's all very impressive but does it make the tea?" No it didn't and neither did the bus.

I have a major problem with the whole deal in that I have never really liked the film. I loved Terence Stamp's touching performance as the trans-sexual Bernadette and the film's soundtrack is a continued delight but the film's sheer ugliness - the camera forever too close to gurning, over-made up, sweaty faces - put it in the same box as MURIEL'S WEDDING, MOULIN ROUGE and STRICTLY BALLROOM, Australian films that have a fascination in over-acting 'baddies', overdoing the ugliness. The script also has no place for women - they are either a bland cypher as in the hero's former wife or a misogynist's dream of ugly, crass harpies.
Not much has been added to the stage adaptation apart from a random selection of mostly disco classics which are forced into the storyline to make the show move along - apropos DOWNTOWN - as a sort of lazy shorthand. For absolutely no reason the wife sings BOOGIE WONDERLAND towards the end for no other reason than to give her and the punters of her casino a song - what... I'M EVERY WOMAN wasn't available? Not that the audience seemed to mind, from the opening chords they happily clapped along with anything, like the most enthusiastic ice-skating audience.
The main problem I had with the show was that despite various attempts to get the tearducts working overtime, the one thing the creator's forgot to throw into the mix was some genuine warmth. There is no humanity in the show, just a synthetic feel-good factor. You only have to compare the show with LA CAGE AUX FOLLES at the Playhouse - which contains as many obvious 'bum' gags - but which also takes the time to let you understand the characters and feel a genuine sympathy for them. But then it also has the added bonus of a score that is written with those characters in mind. Maybe if the PRISCILLA team had bothered to write some original songs rather than hitting the disco playlist on their collective ipods...

I also had a problem with the production which is pitched more for the Wembley Arena than the Palace. I must admit - the moment where Adam is projected out into the auditorium on the big slingback on the top of the bus miming to SEMPRE LIBERA from "La Traviata" is wonderful.

The performances are all average to good - Jason Donovan while missing out on any of the depth Hugo Weaving could bring to the character of 'Tick' was agreeable enough and Oliver Thornton as 'Adam' was okay - I just hate the character.

It is a measure of how good a musical actor he is that Clive Carter managed to convey the heart of the lovelorn outback handyman "Bob" despite a wandering accent and there was a nice supporting turn from Kanako Nakano - how's that for a name - as Cynthia, Bob's bored Vietnamese wife with the eye-popping bar-room act. Zoe Birkett shows there is life in X Factor's alumni as the lead omnipresent floating diva and the supporting company give off enough busy energy.

The star bow is for Tony Sheldon who, despite playing the role of 'Bernadette' for two and 1/2 years since it's original Australian premiere, still manages to give the best and freshest performance.

It is a peach of a part with all the best lines and although Sheldon does nothing to disturb memories of Terence Stamp in the role, he still siezes his opportunities to steal the show.

The show is also worth seeing for the outrageous costumes from Tim Chappel & Lizzy Gardiner recreating their originals from the film and adding to them with the over-the-top production

So there you go... I have spent worse nights in the theatre. LES MISERABLES at the same theatre for one... oh, that was an afternoon matinee but you get my drift.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

For me? How kind of you.
I presume it IS to celebrate my big ol' birthday on Sunday that Carole King has flown to London - she says it's to promote the big re-release of TAPESTRY and her new dvd but I know better.

If I tell her it's my birthday all year we might get her to play a London concert... I would love to see her live.

The Pet Shop Boys released their magnificent YES album recently.

Eleven great songs, magnificently sequenced into a seamless, wonderful journey into pop.

It initially charted at #4, their highest album chart entry since 1996.

This week it went down to #21.

I don't understand the music world anymore.

Monday, April 06, 2009

On Friday I met up with Owen, Sharon and Eamonn and after a nice Italian meal we headed for the Gielgud Theatre where Sharon & Eamonn were treating us to a birthday gift of seeing Alan Bennett's 1980 play ENJOY. The original production starred Joan Plowright and Colin Blakeley with a supporting cast including Susan Littler and Liz Smith but only lasted 7 weeks. This revival stars Alison Steadman and David Troughton as 'Mam' and 'Dad' who occasionally call each other by their real names of Connie and Wilfred. They have lived all their married life in the same back-to-back house in Leeds and together occupy that private hell of querulous married life.

Connie is slowly losing her memory which is driving Wilf to distraction. They share the house with their tough-as-nails daughter Linda who anyone with half an eye could see has a baser career than being a company secretary but whom Wilf idolises. Connie lingers over memories of a vanished son who was driven out years ago for an unnamed but fairly obvious
moral transgression.
Connie and Wilf are awaiting being re-housed in a new maisonette but are visited instead by the mysterious 'Ms. Craig', a silent social worker sent by the council to silently observe their 'everyday' actions to make sure the council is aware of all their needs. 'Ms. Craig' - who everyone must surely know the real identity of - silently watches as each of them lays bare the state of their marriage and their lives as well as watching Linda having sex on the living room carpet.

The second half shows how surprisingly contemporary the play feels with the appearance of subsequent characters - the local yob and the domineering next-door neighbour - who are all followed by their own observer, well dressed office-type Big Brothers who simply record what is happening and do not get involved even when the yob beats up Wilf or Connie and the neighbour attempt to discover whether Wilf's erection proves he is dead or alive. The denouement is even more Orwellian - Connie and Wilf will be re-housed - but in their own house which is going to be dismantled and reassembled in a heritage theme park and where they will live out their days as exhibits.

On the whole I enjoyed it but felt Bennett's ambition didn't quite manage to translate into a good overall play. I certainly enjoyed all of his social commentary and the slow dessication of Connie
and Wilf's lives but Bennett's view is always so insular that I was desperate for a breath of fresh air to get out of his voyeuristic view on shut-in lives. At times the writing reminded me of Orton in dotage - all the characters love to talk in ways they feel will impress, speaking phrases as if quoting them verbatim from articles read in colour supplements.

Alison Steadman was a marvellous Connie, beautifully observed and seemingly channelling Thora Hird. Her Connie was Kath from ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE approaching senility as well as an early sketch for his "Talking Heads" play A CREAM CRACKER UNDER THE SOFA. Alison Steadman perfectly captured the humour in Connie as well as the tragedy of a woman sinking into memory loss.

She was matched by a great performance of frustrated anguish from David Troughton. His Wilfred is a bully, a misogynist and as we find out later an incestuous father but Troughton made him into a believable character as much stranded at the end of the play as Connie but given a
lease of life by a view from a hospital window.

The supporting performances hardly matched the
ir fine work with overblown brassy performances from Josie Walker as the cold-eyed prostitute daughter and Carol Gillespie as the bossy neighbour. It made me wonder how these roles were played in the original production by the late Susan Littler and Liz Smith. Both I feel would have brought some much needed shading to the parts. Only in her last scene did Walker vary the EMMERDALE trampy act, suggesting a wounded soul beneath the otherwise two dimensional caricature.

Christopher Luscombe's direction became a bit unfocused at the end leaving the play to drift off rather than hit home but Janet Bird's design was a constant source of pleasure. In the end I found it a funny, haunting play which could have done with a stronger overall vision.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Here we are... April my favourite month. A birthday and - usually - nicer weather. This birthday is one of those big ticket ones so here is a special Motown Hero pic.

When Diana Ross left The Supremes, Motown boasted they now had two hit acts. However very soon afterwards Mary Wilson realised that they were giving negligible support to them. The fans however were made of a more constant metal.

The hits kept coming UP THE LADDER TO THE ROOF, STONED LOVE, NATHAN JONES, FLOY JOY and the last flowering of success BAD WEATHER. They also had success singing with The Four Tops.

Between 1970 - 1973 The Supremes were led by Jean Terrell who I remember Disc saying had "X rated vocals" - she certainly had them! The Supremes finally hung up their gowns in 1977 and left a collection of under-valued recordings.

This line-up (left to right) Cindy Birdsong, Jean Terrell and Mary Wilson, will always be *my* Supremes. I badgered my Ma to get tickets to see them in 1971 when they played the Hammersmith Odeon and I ended up seeing them twice there as well as when they were surprise special guests when we saw The Four Tops at the Albert Hall.

Here's to the supreme Supremes....